Las Vegas • When the Utes’ offense operates inside-out, it can be potent and balanced and a royal pain to defend. When it becomes one dimensional — particularly if that means relying primarily on perimeter shooting — it can be rough sledding.
Utah bounced back from a disjointed first half in its first game of the season away from Salt Lake City to grind out an 83-74 win over Ole Miss in the opening round of the MGM Resorts Main Event at T-Mobile Arena late Monday night in Las Vegas, Nev.
The Utes (4-0) advance to play UNLV in the tournament final on Wednesday night at 10:30 p.m. (MT).
Senior guard Justin Bibbins scored a game-high 23 points and led a quartet of Utes with 12 points or more. Bibbins went 7-for-11 from the floor and knocked down five 3-pointers in the second half to keep the Rebels putting the first blemish on the Utes’ record.
“Coaches just told me always be ready, be ready for the moment and tonight I was,” Bibbins said.
Freshman forward Donnie Tillman and senior center David Collette scored 13 points apiece, and junior guard Sedrick Barefield scored 12 points. Tyler Rawson added nine points and registered team highs with seven assists and 10 rebounds.
After struggling to score in the post in the first half, the Utes clearly placed their emphasis on getting the ball inside after halftime. Their first possession of the half ended with Tillman catching in the post, making a strong move toward the basket and drawing a foul. Collette scored seven points in the first nine minutes of the half.
“It was us big guys not working hard enough,” Collette said of the lack of production in the first half. “I think our guards wanted to get us the ball, and I don’t think we were helping them out too much. So we kind of changed that around in the second half.”
The Utes shot 54 percent from the floor in the second half.
The Utes led 51-41 after a 9-0 run with 15:19 remaining the second half. However, that lead was short-lived as the Rebels (3-1) charged back thanks to the hot shooting of Deandre Burnett.
Burnett scored 18 of his team-high 21 points in the second half, and he didn’t miss from behind the 3-point line (4-for-4) after halftime. He made five of the Rebels’ eight 3-pointers. Burnett drained a wide-open 3-pointer from the corner with 8:28 remaining to bring the Rebels within three, 62-59.
The Utes lead didn’t reach double digits for the rest of the night. The Rebels pulled within two points, 71-69, after an old-fashioned three-point play by Devontae Shuler with 4:20. Bibbins made a 3-pointer from the top of the key after an offensive rebound by Collette and a kick-out pass from Rawson to give the Utes a 74-69 lead.
Bibbins scored eight of the Utes’ final 12 points, including a pair 3-pointers and two free throws in the final minutes to close the game.
The first half lacked a flow or rhythm as the teams combined for 18 turnovers (nine each). Barefield committed six turnovers in the first half, and 18 of the Utes’ 29 first-half shot attempts came from behind the 3-point line.
Parker Van Dyke’s shooting gave the Utes an edge going into the half. Van Dyke made back-to-back 3-pointers put the Utes ahead 34-32 with 3:42 remaining before halftime. Van Dyke and freshman Tillman combined for the Utes’ final 12 points of the half as they scratched out a 40-37 advantage.
“If you play 30 games, I’ve always made the comparison with a marathon,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “Each game is a little less than a mile. I’ve never known anybody to win a marathon on the fourth mile. We’ve got a nice little rotation, and we depended on different people.
“Parker came in and gave us a nice boost. He hadn’t been playing a lot. Donnie and Jayce [Johnson gave us a boost] in the previous game. That’s kind of the essence of a team. That’s what I like about our guys. They’re genuinely all engaged. They’ll be some different guys on different nights, but everybody has got to get ready because it is a marathon. It’s an awful long race.”